Police call for change to 'outdated' protest laws after MPs threatened over Brexit

Lizzie Dearden
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Police call for change to 'outdated' protest laws after MPs threatened over Brexit

Police call for change to 'outdated' protest laws after MPs threatened over Brexit

A senior police officer has called for the government to change “outdated” protest laws amid a rise in threats against MPs.

In the wake of protests by the UK “yellow vests” and other Brexit-related groups stationed outside parliament, Metropolitan Police commander Adrian Usher said officers were struggling to enforce current laws.

“We need to move away from the language of ‘peaceful protest’ to talk about ‘lawful protest’,” he told parliament’s Human Rights Committee.

“A protest being peaceful is only one of the attributes police would assign to a protest to make it lawful.

“We are absolutely in the business of facilitating lawful protest [but] where protest steps over into being unlawful, whether you consider it peaceful or not is a moot point.

“We will conduct a sober review of our tactics against recent protest but I think it’s likely to say the legislation associated with policing protest is quite dated.

“Policing and protest has moved on and legislation should follow suit.”

Mr Usher said police would support parliament if members wanted new laws "to better protect itself and its immediate environment", adding: "Recent protest has showed us that the law is dated and not effective."

The committee heard that MPs and peers were experiencing “skyrocketing” levels of abuse and death threats over Brexit and other political issues.

Recent months have seen a number of high profile incidents of abuse aimed at MPs, including the pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry who was confronted by “yellow vest” protesters outside parliament.

Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry said she was followed and verbally abused after leaving the House of Commons during protests by Leave Means Leave on what would have been Brexit day.

"I also had the experience of walking across Westminster Bridge and being abused," she added. "There were no police around whatsoever and I was really scared, it was the most frightened I've never been in my life."

Last week, a Brexit supporter was jailed for sending death threats and racist messages to MPs and protests on 29 March saw effigies of politicians dragged through the streets.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, a Labour MP and chair of a panel on parliamentary security, said the murder of Jo Cox was a “wake-up call” for her colleagues.

But he warned that politicians still do not report all threats they receive because they have developed a “high tolerance level”.

“If we were anywhere else in other ways of life, I don’t think we would accept the level we’ve got to,” Sir Lindsay said, saying MPs’ families and staff were also being targeted.

“We come here, we’re elected and we begin to soak it up as being the norm as acceptable, when it’s not acceptable.”

Sir Lindsay raised fears that the worsening situation could be discouraging people from standing for political office in the UK

(Angela Christofilou/The Independent)

Parliament's director of security, Eric Hepburn, told the committee that he had seen a “skyrocketing” number of abuse and threats reports from MPs in his two-and-a-half years in post.

“The sheer volume of online abuse we’re now seeing is growing month-on-month, year-on-year,” he added.

“It goes from physical assaults to threats to kill - we’re seeing threats around hanging, shooting, stabbing, threats of assault including rape, and antisemitic, homophobic, misogynistic and racial abuse.

“Personal abuse regarding appearance is a common feature, harassment and intimidation of a personal nature. We’re seeing stalking, we get fixated individuals and we get aggressive confrontation and filming.”

Mr Hepburn said that while BAME politicians and women “get the lion’s share” of abuse, but that all politicians are targeted with vitriol sparked by what is being debated in parliament, their views and press coverage.

He said incidents involving Ms Soubry was “a sign that things are changing” and warned: “My opinion is things are changing quite dramatically at the moment.”

Human Rights Committee chair Harriet Harman said that MPs were committed to the right to demonstrate and freedom of speech.

“But none of us will or should forget the murder of Jo Cox, the killing of PC Keith Palmer and the attempted murder of Rosie Cooper,” she added.

It comes after the police chief in charge of Brexit preparations called for protesters, politicians and the public to "be very careful about the language you are using so it doesn't end up with consequences that weren't intended".

A Home Office spokesman said: “The Home secretary has spoken to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner regarding these protests and confirmed that the Home Office is on hand to discuss any support the force needs.

“We will continue to work closely with the police and will be considering any lessons we can learn from these events.”